On the east side of our land, between our garden and the neighbor’s lawn, we had a patch of grass that has always turned brown and crunchy at the first sign of dry weather. Grubs loved it and bare patches of dirt were common. Due to its position at the top of the slope, its southern exposure, its proximity to the roots of our large silver maple tree and the absolute lack of any shade, the lawn never thrived. I thought if I made terraces to reduce the steepness of the slope and planted trees, shrubs and herbs to offer shade and help hold the moisture in the ground between rains, this area could really become productive.
To build the terraces, I first dug shallow trenches (swales) laid along the contour of the land so that the water wouldn’t flow along it but instead would collect and allow the soil to slowly absorb it. I used the sod and soil that I removed from the trenches to build a berm below the trench to increase its water holding capacity. I also used large logs from trees we had to take down after a storm to help build up the area below the trenches.
I then filled the trenches with all the old twigs and small branches I could find, trying to employ the ideas of hugelkultur. As the water collects in the trenches, the decaying wood absorbs the extra water and helps to hold it close to the roots of the plants. I covered the twigs and branches with a thick layer of goat bedding (hay mixed with goat manure). At the end, I had terraces rather than a slope.
It would have made sense to put the trenches in before I planted my trees and shrubs, but I don’t always have control over my time. Things don’t always get done when I would prefer them. Instead, I squeeze my projects in between my family activities. The terraces were not finished by the time the plants arrived so the plants went in first, leaving space for the terraces and swales to be completed.
When the terracing was finished and the major trees and shrubs in place, I laid down a thick layer of cardboard to cover the grass and covered the cardboard with wooden chips that are a by-product of splitting and chopping firewood.
In choosing the plants, I tried to make sure that I would have a collection of plants that would fulfill the roles of the plants that naturally live together in a forest, performing multiple function and working together to create a garden that could eventually sustain itself after it became established. For example, I incorporated plants that act as fertilizers because they either have tap roots that mine deeply for minerals (comfrey) or they fix nitrogen and store these minerals and nitrogen in their roots, leaves and branches (lupine, Sea Buckthorn, Siberian Pea Shrub). As roots die back and parts of the plant fall to the ground, the nitrogen becomes available to the other plants within the community. The faster growing plants, such as the comfrey and sea buckthorn, can be trimmed back and dropped onto the soil to build mulch. Other plants attract insects to pollinate the fruit bearing trees and bushes and provide habitats to encourage beneficial insects to remain in the garden.
Examples of plants that attract and provide shelter for beneficial insects:
Here is the plant community that I selected, organized by layers:
Canopy trees: American Persimmon, peach (from seed), cherry
Under-story trees and shrubs: Hazelnuts, Sea Buckthorn, high-bush blueberry and Saskatchewan berry bushes, Siberian pea shrub, cornelian cherry, elderberry
Herbaceous layer: Red current bushes, low-bush blueberry, comfrey, yarrow, day lilies, borage, perennial onions, hot peppers, amaranth, etc.
Ground cover layer – strawberries, violas
Soil layer – bulbs, onions, garlic
Climbing layer – I don’t have anything planted yet. I am still thinking about what might work here and what it might climb up.
Photo of the newly planted food forest garden in May 2012. (As you can see by the edge of the garden, I hadn’t quite finished covering the entire area with cardboard and woodchips when I took this photo.
Photo of the food forest garden after it had a few months to grow in August 2012.
As much as I have planted, I still do not have the diversity I want in the herbaceous layer. To help fix that, as my herb plants in other parts of my garden have flowered and produced seed, I have been dispersing the seeds through out the food forest garden area to have a denser, more diverse layer of herbs next year. Some of these include lupine, anise hyssop, calendula, nasturtiums, yarrow, broccoli raab, French Sorrel, New Zealand spinach, Good King Henry, lettuce, buckwheat and flax.
-- "To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves." M. Gandhi